We’ve got a new No. 1 atop the NBA Power Rankings this week as the Milwaukee Bucks slide up to first, while the Celtics’ recent slide has them down to third (behind the Grizzlies as well). This week the focus is on what Santa would bring all 30 teams.
1. Bucks (22-8, Last week No. 2). Christmas came early for Milwaukee this year when Joe Ingles made his debut with the team, having recovered from a torn ACL. He looked rusty and now his minutes and movement are limited, but his shooting and ball movement will give Mike Budenholzer more options during the playoffs. The Bucks play in the best game on Christmas Day, going against the Celtics, but the Bucks are just starting to find their stride — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday have played fewer than 70 minutes together this season. That will change on Christmas, expect a heavy dose of them against the Celtics.
2. Grizzlies (19-11, LW 4). All the Grizzlies want for Christmas is to get their second-best player back — Desmond Bane. He has been out with a toe injury since mid-November but is reportedly getting close to returning and giving Memphis an All-Star level second scoring option (he averaged 24.7 points a night in the dozen games he played before his injury). Christmas Day was supposed to be a Stephen Curry vs. Ja Morant showdown, now it could be another Memphis showcase — like the beatdown of Milwaukee recently — because the Grizzlies are rolling and the Warriors are not the same without their star.
3. Celtics (22-9, LW 1). Boston has stumbled of late dropping 4-of-5 games, but it’s not the return of Robert Williams the past two games that’s the issue, it’s the Celtics not being able to knock down a 3-pointer — they are shooting 28.6% on 44 3s a game over that stretch. They will need to find that touch in the big Christmas Day showdown against the Bucks — Milwaukee is contesting better at the arc this season and that shooting is one of the big advantages for the Celtics in that matchup. The Celtics will also need the best of Williams on Christmas Day to match up with Brook Lopez, who has played well on both ends of the court recently.
4. Cavaliers (21-11, LW 5). Since Jarrett Allen returned to the lineup eight games ago the Cavs are 6-2 with a +7 net rating with the fourth-best defense in the NBA over that stretch. The Cavaliers want a fifth starter who can play the three, stretch the floor on offense and play strong defense for Christmas. Of course, 29 other teams are looking for a guy like that and it’s likely more of an off-season pick-up for Cleveland, but if Santa has one of those players in their bag the Cavs will take it.
5. Pelicans (18-12, LW 3). What the Pelicans want for Christmas is Brandon Ingram back — he recently had a setback in recovery from his toe sprain and they have missed him and his shot creation during the current four-game losing streak. The most recent of those losses was to the Bucks in a game that showed the Pelicans what a contending team looks like mid-season, the level of talent and execution needed. New Orleans has 4-of-5 at home and they are riding a seven-game winning streak at the Smoothie King center.
6. Nets (19-12, LW 8). The Nets need a continued focus on basketball — just basketball, not the sideshow around this team. The drama has died down and Brooklyn has gone 12-3 since Kyrie Irving returned from his 8-game suspension, and over those 15 games it has a top-10 offense and defense. Put simply, the Nets have looked like one of the better teams in the East. Sure this run came against a soft part of the schedule, but you’ve got to beat whose in front of you and the Nets have. There are better tests coming up Friday and Monday against the Bucks and Cavaliers.
7. Nuggets (19-11, LW 6). Nikola Jokic has said in the past Deandre Ayton is the center that gives him the most trouble, Ayton’s size and mobility means he can body up Jokic and slow him down. But good luck with that on Christmas Day Ayton because Jokic has been on fire of late, averaging 30.4 points per game on 59.1% shooting over his five games, with 15.4 rebounds and 10.6 assists. That has sparked wins in 5-of-6 and the Nuggets now have the best record in the West — and they have yet to get Michael Porter Jr. back and fully healthy for an extended period yet.
8. Suns (19-13, LW 7). Phoenix finally looked like it was getting back on track having won three in a row, and then came an ugly loss to the reeling Wizards, a game that saw Deandre Ayton and Monty Williams arguing on the bench (again). That’s not the way to impress the new owner, Mat Ishbia, who was a walk-on at Michigan State (and won a national title in 2000 under Ton Izzo). Walk-ons are competitors, fighters, and guys who had to earn their way – the Suns could use a little of that grit of late. Outside of changing up some personnel on the business side (something overdue), it will be interesting to see if Ishbia is more of a spender and more aggressive than the outgoing Sarver.
9. 76ers (17-12, LW 9). Joel Embiid has looked every bit the MVP over his last five games, averaging 36.8 points per game on 57.5 shooting with 11 rebounds and 3.6 assists — and the Sixers are undefeated in that stretch. They play one of the more interesting Christmas Day games, a showdown with the red-hot Knicks in Madison Square Garden. Tyrese Maxey won’t be ready for that game (think after the first of the year due to his fractured left foot) but New York has no answer for Embiid and if James Harden can find any kind of rhythm New York’s improved defense should be overmatched. But can Philly handle what will be an energetic Christmas Day atmosphere in the Garden?
10. Knicks (18-13, LW 17). New York got a good laugh on Wednesday out of the NBA’s “punishment” of taking away their 2025 second-round pick for tampering with Jalen Brunson (who has played like an All-Star this season and is well worth that pick). New York has won eight in a row and the biggest key is their defense, which is surrendering less than a point per possession in that stretch. It will be a little tougher to keep the red-hot 76ers under that number on Christmas Day, but if Brunson can spark the offense this will be one of the better games of the day.
11. Kings (16-13, LW 12). What the Kings want for Christmas is the same thing they have wanted for 16 years — a trip to the playoffs. But this season it feels within reach — as long as they stop doing things like losing to the Hornets at home. The Kings are home for 10 of their next 12 and this is their chance to solidify their grip on a postseason slot. The Kings have a +9 net rating when both Domantas Sabonis and De'Aaron Fox are on the court, and coach Mike Brown has started lobbying for both of them to be All-Stars. That may be a big ask in a west this deep with talent.
12. Clippers (18-14, LW 13). The obvious thing the Clippers need is continued health for their Kawhi Leonard and Paul George — considering the run of health issues around this team maybe Santa can bring the training staff a larger, industrial-sized ice machine. The other thing the Clippers need is continued luck — they have the point differential of a 15-17 team, but they have racked up 18 wins to keep them in the mix in the West. Starting on Friday, Los Angeles has 7-of-8 on the road.
13. Trail Blazers (17-14, LW 14). We don’t celebrate Damian Lillard‘s greatness enough — and his commitment and loyalty to the city. That did change a little this past week when, with a couple of free throws Monday night, Lillard passed Clyde Drexler to become the all-time leading scorer in Trail Blazer history. Lillard is a top 75 player all time and a lock future Hall of Fame who has not spent his career looking for a way out of town like so many stars doo, but rather looked for reasons to stay committed.
— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) December 20, 2022
14. Mavericks (15-16, LW 11). What Luka Doncic and the Mavericks need for Christmas — a second shot creator and scorer — is unlikely to be in Santa’s bag this time of year, and may be on backorder until next summer. At least. Dallas will host LeBron James and the Lakers on Christmas Day, a winnable game since the Lakers will be without Anthony Davis. LeBron vs. Luka is a good headliner, but for all the knocks on the Dallas supporting cast it is better than what the Lakers roll out. If those other players can knock down a few 3-pointers, the Mavericks should pick up the win.
15. Jazz (18-16, LW 15). After their red-hot start that was the story of the league, the Jazz are 6-9 over their last 15 with a -1.4 net rating. There are some good wins in there, such as the Pelicans last week, but the Jazz have fallen back to eighth in the West and Danny Ainge has some decisions to make. He does not want a team that lives in the middle of the pack — does he trade away players such as Jordan Clarkson or Lauri Markkanen and continue on the path they appeared to be on this summer — tanking for Wembanyama — or does he ride out this roster for the rest of this season and see if he can build with it going forward? Markkanen can opt out at the end of this season and there are reports he is leaning toward doing that and even taking a little less next season for the security of a four-year deal. Do the Jazz want to pay him that far out?
16. Warriors (15-17, LW 10). Golden State’s Christmas gift is on backorder and will not arrive until mid-January, when Stephen Curry’s shoulder heals and he can return to the court. Jordan Poole helped the Warriors pick up their third road win of the season dropping 43 on the Raptors, but Golden State will need a few more nights like that — and maybe some improved defense — to keep its head above water with Curry out. The big concern this season for the Warriors is that even if they get healthy just in time to hit the playoffs in full stride, they will not have a great seed due the early season losses, making their road to a repeat that much more difficult.
17. Hawks (16-15, LW 18). Christmas came a little early in Atlanta with Dejounte Murray and John Collins getting back on the court Monday from their ankle sprains, and both played a role in the win over the Magic. Collins is going to get showcased over the coming month as he is one of the players most likely to be traded at the deadline, but it won’t be Travis Schlenk making that deal. The man at the top of the Atlanta basketball food chain stepped down on Wednesday (with Landry Fields taking over the big chair). Schlenk took a big swing this summer trading for Murray to pair with Trae Young and that hasn’t worked out as hoped, was his stepping away the price for that miss?
18. Heat (16-16, LW 20). What the Heat need for Christmas is some depth, ideally a playmaker at the four but they will take either part of that equation at this point. Miami remains thin at the four, especially with Caleb Martin out with a sprained ankle, and they only have two playmakers worth mentioning in Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro, and with Butler missing time recently the Heat have looked flat on offense. Miami is home this week and needs to rack up some wins because a tough West Coast road trip follows.
19. Timberwolves (16-15, LW 22). Minnesota would like to get Karl-Anthony Towns back as its Christmas present, but the team is now 6-4 with a +1.4 net rating since he went out. They’ve picked up a couple of wins this past week without KAT or Rudy Gobert, but the real question is what happens when both of them are back? Minnesota has just not looked comfortable with them playing in a two-big lineup, but the front office has gone all-in on that so it will be up to Chris Finch and the players to find a way to make it work.
20. Pacers (15-16, LW 21). Christmas came to the Pacers last summer when they drafted Bennedict Mathurin, who looks to be a star they can put next to Tyrese Haliburton in the backcourt and have something to build around. The Pacers should lean into that future and move on from its oddly-constructed present, which Rick Carlisle had winning early but has come back to early with a 3-8 record in their last 11 — and things don’t get easier this week with a road trip to Boston, Miami, and New Orleans.
21. Raptors (13-18, LW 16). They have lost six straight and 9-of-11 and a lot of it just comes back to shooting. How a team with Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Scottie Barnes, and Gary Trent Jr. is shooting 32.4% on the season — the second-worst percentage in the NBA — is one of the hardest things to explain about this season. Around the league vultures are circling, hoping that Masai Ujiri decides to blow this thing up at the trade deadline and make some deals, but history suggests whatever the league expects him to do he will do the opposite.
22. Lakers 13-17, LW 19). Santa needs to bring the Lakers a way to keep their heads above water while Anthony Davis is out for the next month — and maybe longer — with a still not disclosed foot injury. Not sure even Santa has that in his bag as the Lakers have some rough road trips coming up, and if the Lakers fall off at all it has to impact their decisions at the trade deadline (why give up picks if you are just trying to make the play-in?). The bright spot recently has been the play of rookie Max Christie, who brings real energy off the bench and is hitting 40% of his 3-pointers this season.
23. Magic 11-21, LW 27). So, about that tanking for Victor Wembanyama… the Magic have won 6-of-7, including two wins over the Boston Celtics, and is playing its best basketball of the season. (Oh, and please stop saying they have their Wembanyama in Bol Bol, they do not, he’s a nice story this season but he’s not that.) Orlando can’t tell its young stars Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner to dial it back, but it may not need to — even with this surge Orlando has the fifth-worst record in the league, it still has strong odds for a top pick in a deep draft. This run is not going to last forever.
24. Thunder (13-18, LW 25). Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has become one of the league’s best clutch players — his baseline jumper Monday to beat the Trail Blazers was his third game-winner this season in the final two seconds (regulation or OT, stat courtesy ESPN Stats & Information research. For Christmas, the Thunder just need more picks to go right, Chet Holmgren to get healthy, and for them to get some players around him.
The shot heard round the world 🪣 pic.twitter.com/GGRv5IvTZj
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) December 20, 2022
25. Bulls (12-18, LW 23). What they want — no, what they need for Christmas is Lonzo Ball back to be a floor general and defender, but it appears we may not see him this season following knee surgery. Which just adds to the woes in Chicago. The Bulls have dropped 7-of-10, have fallen out of even the play-in in the West, and had a locker room blow up at halftime of the loss to the Timberwolves where they went on to give up 150 points and lose. DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine play next to each other, not with each other, on offense (this team just seems to settle for a lot of mediocre shots) and the team’s defensive effort is often flat.
26. Wizards (12-20, LW 24). The Wizards’ recent 10-game losing streak was maybe best exemplified by their crunch-time defense against the Lakers last Sunday, which could best be described as embarrassing. The Lakers’ last two buckets were uncontested dunks at the rim (and the one before that was a clean look at a floater in the paint). The Wizards did break their losing streak against the stumbling Suns on Tuesday, but still have six of their next eight games on the road.
27. Spurs (10-20, LW 28). Gregg Popovich does everything right — including tanking while still being competitive and teaching his young core. When the Spurs went to Mexico City to face the Heat last weekend, the Spurs were fighting and down 11 with 2:48 left when Popovich subbed out Devin Vassell and Zach Collins for deep bench guys, essentially waiving the white flag. It was a little too early, NBA teams make 11-point comeback fast in a 3-point shooting world, but Popovich knew what he was doing. It was time to focus on the next game. This team will be in the mix for Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson, and if they land a franchise guy you know they’ll know how to build around him.
28. Pistons (8-25, LW 30). They aren’t drawing a lot of headlines for potential trades, but this team could get their Christmas gift with some moves toward the future in February (then get the big gift in the lottery next May). The Pistons bench unit of Saddiq Bey, Alec Burks and Cory Joseph could draw some trade interest around the league, and you can be sure teams are calling about Bojan Bogdanovic. With Cade Cunningham out until next season and the focus on the future, it’s time for the Pistons to be sellers.
29. Rockets (9-21, LW 26). What the Rockets want for Christmas is the NBA Draft Lottery ping-pong balls to love them come this May. They already have a nice young core of players in Jalen Green, Jabari Smith Jr., Tari Eason, Alperen Sengun and Kevin Porter Jr., but they could use one of those alphas at the top of the draft to lead them all. The Rockets are not all that far away and they know it, even if the learning curve can be a little painful this season.
39. Hornets (8-23, LW 29). Santa, bring LaMelo Ball some help. Maybe through the lottery next May, maybe from somewhere else, but we can’t leave a talent like his languishing for long. Ball has averaged 26 points and 7.8 assists in the four games since he returned from an ankle injury. Can you imagine what Wembanyama would look like next to Ball? Doesn’t Michael Jordan deserve something like that for Christmas, too?